Service animals in places of worship. What must we do? What should we do?
Situation. A member brings a dog to weekly worship. The dog misbehaves. Sounds, smells, etc. You politely ask if you can help, gently implying that the animal is distracting to others. The member responds that their “service animal” has “a right to be here”. What do you do?
Relevant Legal Background – the ADA. One of the most significant things the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) accomplishes is to protect people with disabilities from exclusion or discrimination in “places of public accommodation” – like restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, and other private businesses open to the public. The ADA rules regarding “service animals” are in a section of the ADA called “Title III”. Under these rules, a “service animal” is a dog (or sometimes, a miniature horse) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
- Religious Entity Exemption. Places of worship are not included in the list of “public accommodations” under the ADA. In addition, “religious entities” are affirmatively exempt from Title III. At least as far as the ADA is concerned, religious entities are not required to allow service animals in regular worship services, even well-trained service animals.
- Emotional Support Animals. An animal whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support does not qualify as a “service animal” under the ADA. Service animals support people with disabilities by performing specific tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. While there is a clear line between “service animal” and “emotional support animal”, practically, that line is not always obvious to an observer. A “service animal” can be trained to address a psychiatric or mental disability, which (to an observer) might look like an ”emotional support” animal.
- Complex Area of Law. The ADA is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities with respect to many activities and in different ways. Title III is about public accommodations. Title I of the ADA is about employment. Title II is about government and public transit. A service animal that could be excluded from a worship service under Title III, might be required as a disability accommodation for employment under Title I. Also, Title I can apply to one faith based group with 20 employees and not to another faith based group with 10 employees. The analysis is different depending on the issue, the purpose, and the parties involved. State laws and local ordinances can also apply. Often state and local law are substantively similar to the ADA, but can have different contours and may not clearly exclude religious entities. Also, “service animal” is an ADA term, not to be confused with similar concepts under other laws, such as the Fair Housing Act or the Air Carrier Access Act.
Religious Considerations. Even if a place of worship may not be required to accommodate service animals under contemporary US law, the next question is - what should we do? Christian Scriptures are instructive here to our church clients: warnings against misleading a disabled person and curses that follow such behavior (Leviticus 19:14 and Deuteronomy 27:18); exhortations to advocate for just treatment and fairness for disabled persons (Proverbs 31:8); and affirmative instruction to promote opportunities for and demonstrate warm hospitality to persons with disabilities - such as the interaction of David and Mephibosheth, (2 Samuel 9), and the Parable of the Great Banquet Jesus describes in Luke 14. Further, the Old and New Testaments depict God as uniquely identifying with disabled persons, such as in the description of the Lord’s Servant in Isaiah 42 and the man born blind in John 9. Similar teachings exist in other world religions.
Practical Application – Service Animal Policy. A succinct policy is the best way we’ve seen for faith-based clients to handle this situation. The policy – posted on the website, can offer attendees advanced notice (and avoid awkward confrontations), promote consistency in application, offer clarity to attendees and to staff/deacons.
We normally recommend policies clarify the application of federal and state/local law, distinguish service animals and emotional support animals, include an outline of how the religious entity will accommodate service animals, and instructions on who to contact with questions. It can also be a vehicle for the faith-based group to communicate hospitality.
 ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual, Section III-1.5000, “Religious Entities”.